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Understanding the socio political conditions of an author's time period provides valuable insights into the motivations and influences of the writers works. It is important to recognize the external forces active in the author's daily life in order to more accurately evaluate the thematic and symbolic devices used in the work.
Clearly works of literature are based in a specific cultural and time framework, so in analysis of works of literature we are unable to separate study of that particular time period with the work itself in our analysis. What is of particular interest to me is the way that fiction can try to change the socio-cultural context in which it is based. These works of social protest are very powerful and can be seen to have served to change society in a number of key examples.
You can see this trend of social protest novels beginning even in the book that was widely accepted as the first English novel, Pamela, by Samuel Richardson, which amongst other things pointed out various evils in 18th Century English society. Two other social protest novels that had a big impact on society were Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana and The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Both of these depicted the horrible conditions of a group of people; firstly American sailors and their living and working conditions and secondly immigrants in the US and the terrible conditions of the American meat-packing industry at the start of the 20th Century. Both books stunned their readers and resulted in a change of legislation: the rights of American seamen were strengthened and Roosevelt ordered an investigation into the meat-packing industry that resulted in the Pure-Food Laws being passed in 1906.
Other examples you might want to look at are the novels of Dickens and their role in exposing the true poverty of the urban poor in London, and novels such as Cry, Beloved Country and The Grapes of Wrath, to name but a few.
What a thought-provoking question!
Aside from the many metaphysical novels such as Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick," and exitstential works such as Albert Camus's "The Stranger" so many works of fiction are mainly commentaries on the socio-political conditions. Indeed, in countries in which freedom of expression was not existent, writers often cloaked their socio-political ideologies in a work of fiction. As you may know, Fyodor Dostovesky, the great Russian writer, was freed only a day before his scheduled execution in Russia. Voltaire of France was banished from his country for his writings (among other works, his "Candide" caused a furor as it parodies the popular philosophy of optimism). Jonathan Swift of Ireland raised the ire of the ruling British with his "Modest Proposal." And, in his time, Charles Dickens--as did his French contemporary Victor Hugo in France--brought to the attention of the world the plight of the poor in the social "prison" of Victorian England.
One salient example of a novel that had a tremendous socio-political impact in the United States is Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" which exposed the horrid working conditions of the workers in Chicago's stockyards. As a result of the publication of this novel, changes were effected. The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act was enacted after so many readers were outraged at the unsanitary conditions under which meat was prepared. Another noteworthy novel with a monumental socio-political impact is Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," an anti-slavery took the world by storm as she wrote her protest-novel about the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Clearly, both Sinclair's and Stowe's novels are testimonies of man's inhumanity to man.
One of America's most socio-political writers is the twentieth century socialist novelist, John Steinbeck. His "Of Mice and Men' is set in Depression-Era 1930s as his magnum opus, "The Grapes of Wrath," both of which protray the disenfranchised Okies; another of his novels protests the 1942 and 1943 Zoot Zuit Race Riots of the Los Angeles. Steinbeck's "A Wayward Bus" expresses his disillusionment in the aftermath of World War II.
And, the list goes on....
A good work of fiction can be a very good means of depicting and explaining socio-political system of a given period. A writer of fiction with good insight and skills of a story teller can create much greater impact in creating awareness of such systems among a much greater audience, than it is possible for a researcher of socio-political system. Further the conditions described by an story teller need not be limited to his or her own time - it can pertain to present, past, or future. A very good example of such work of fiction is Animal Farm by George Orwell.
A work of fiction is born in a world of facts. The fiction-writer is a living human-being rooted in a time & space, living under particular circumstances, under real conditions of society & politics. Although a work of fiction is a kind of making, it is never made in a vacuum. The raw-materials, such as characters & events, are borrowed from the real experiences of life, and these materials can never be free from the socio-political realities. In the Marxian paradigm, all kinds of literature belong to the 'superstructure' erected upon the economic 'base'; hence no literature is possible which does not have some sort of relationship with the social-political conditions in which it is made. If the writer is directly committed to a political/idiological view of life or society, the work shall be more tendentious than others. We may remember Maxim Gorky's novel Mother as an example of this tendentiousness. But even a high Modernist work like Joyce's Ulysses is, by no chance, a work of art aloof or diconnected from its socio-political realities. May be, the writer prefers a strongly representationalist account of the actual conditions; or else he/she may prefer some allegorical/mythical method as we find in Orwell's Animal Farm or the previously mentioned Ulysses.
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